Schools break law by excluding autistic pupils

Nearly half of children with autism in England have been illegally excluded from schools that struggle to meet their needs, a charity has said.

A report, shown exclusively to The Times, reveals that 45 per cent of families with a child with autistic spectrum disorder (ASD) — about 20,000 children — had experienced unofficial exclusions where they were sent home because the school could not deal with their behaviour.

The report looked at 745 families in England with children with ASD. The condition is defined as having difficulties with communication or social interaction and is usually accompanied by sensory processing disorder, which means that sufferers may hear noises or see lights more intensely. The vast majority of children with ASD learn in mainstream state schools, academies and special schools.

According to government guidelines, a child may legally be excluded only for a fixed number of days or permanently, and any exclusion must be formally recorded. Informal or unofficial exclusions — such as sending pupils home early or for “cooling off” periods — are unlawful, regardless of whether they are with the agreement of parents or carers.

Elizabeth Archer, of Ambitious About Autism, a charity set up in 1997 by a group of parents including the author Nick Hornby, said that some ASD parents were being asked to keep children at home during tests or Ofsted inspections. Other children had been asked not to join school trips, or were working on reduced timetables, without the parents having received an official letter from the school.

“If our sample is reflective then around 20,000 children in England are being illegally deprived of some part of their education this year,” Ms Archer said. “Official exclusions are supposed to trigger the school and local authority to look again at whether needs are being met. We believe that if children with autism had their needs met in school these exclusions would be nowhere near this level.”

Julie Moktadir, chief executive of Ipsea, the independent special educational needs advice service, said: “Schools are concerned about the cost implications of supporting a child. This leads to children being unsupported, which rests in challenging behaviour. A child may not cope with loud noise, and might be in a music class where drums are being played and feel there is no option but to run away or lash out. This situation is easily avoided by providing a quiet place but too often a school doesn’t recognise that child’s needs.”

Louisa Emerson, 45, who lives in St Lawrence, Essex, is the mother of Fred, ten, who is helped by a learning support assistant (LSA) for most of the school day. Fred hit another child while his LSA was absent. For 20 days the school insisted that he receive lessons on his own in a small room.

“I was sad for the child that got hit but Fred is not the only child who’s ever hit anyone, however he was the only child to be taught in a storeroom by himself for a month,” Mrs Emerson said.

In a survey of 1,100 schools this year 82 per cent said they did not have sufficient funding to provide adequately for pupils with special educational needs or disabilities.

Extra stress for my son
My ex-husband and I were asked to a meeting at the mainstream school our 12-year-old son Tino, who has autism, attended (Melanie Sykes writes).

Tino had been at the school for almost a year but the head teacher told us the school wasn’t right for him and that we should think about finding another one.

It was upsetting and stressful. Finding the right school took about six months — it was soul destroying.

Tino had to go on some trial days, which is necessary but particularly stressful for someone with autism, who thrives on everything being predictable and known.

In the end we got lucky and found a good school with a teacher that understands him. I feel like schools are struggling to look after our children with autism.

Parents often contact me telling me schools are failing to understand autism enough to properly support their children.